Review of Computation and the Future of the Human Condition

Stephen Wolfram
Rating: 2/5

There's an old warning passed down in STEM circles. Back when the loom was the most advanced machine on the planet, the leading metaphor for how brains worked was as a loom. As telephones began being strung across the country, the this metaphor shifted---now the brain was like a telephone switchboard. These days the brain is like a computer, but I'm reasonably sure it's going to stay a computer. My point is that our familiarities inform the metaphors we use, but it's worth keeping in mind *that these things are just metaphors.*

Wolfram falls victim to this. Not only are brains computers, but they are in fact /computation itself/. Intelligence is merely computation. Weather systems are merely computations. Thus, Wolfram says, weather systems are intelligent too. This is a neat trick of semantics, but it's ultimately useless. The word "intelligence" refers to human-like-things, and not to weather-like-things, regardless of any computational similarities they have under the surface. Wolfram eventually concedes the point, but it left a sour taste in my mouth. If he's going to argue in clear circles like this one, why should I trust his reasoning on other things where I find the causal relationships less clear?

"Everything is computation" is the claim, and Wolfram follows this argument to its limit---that Godelian proofs are thus a limiting factor in every endeavor. We're unable to predict the future because of the halting problem. We're unable to distinguish meaning because doing so is equivalent to solving the halting problem. Et cetera.

This all may be true, but it seems like grasping at straws from a man who has this to say about mathematics: "what I’ve concluded is that actually the mathematics we have today is really just a historical accident: the direct generalization of the arithmetic and geometry that happened to be used in ancient Babylon. So it’s just history that makes the particular axiom systems we’re using seem meaningful to us."

Yes, the halting problem is a very real phenomenon, but the vast majority of the time it doesn't strike in full generality; we can often approximate solutions. And, this is all based on the assumption that the universe itself is subject to Curry-Howard. Maybe, but then again the only evidence we have is that there don't appear to be any NP-complete problems in nature.

Computation and the Future of the Human Condition isn't all bad though. It's a short enough read that you can get through it in one sitting, and it'll definitely provoke interesting thoughts. That being said, it's not Wolfram's best work. A better read is his blog post Showing Off to the Universe ( which better details his arguments and is free.